Hajar Masoud: Redefining humanity

A humanitarian worker from Gaza finds similarities between her birthplace and Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood

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      By Hajar Masoud

      Even in my dreams, I would have never imagined that one day, after 12-years as a humanitarian worker in the Middle East, I would be doing such similar work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

      I don’t want to compare the DTES with war zones in the Middle East, however, I’ve learned that B.C. can be defined as its own conflict zone.

      I wrote this after a lot of thinking. I am not used to speaking up. I was raised to be silent, and taught that this is the only way to survive. Wait, listen, do not argue, it will pass, and you will live. But do we really live, when we are silent? Do we?

      If you’re a woman from the Middle East, you are a second- or maybe a third-, or perhaps even a fourth-class citizen. They raise you to let men decide, and you follow. That’s how I was raised.

      Then I lived within the irony of my 12 years of work experience in the middle of conflicts, waiting for the bomb to fall so I could continue driving to the next food distribution centre,  seeing my friends and colleagues get injured or even killed, seeing my sister’s home destroyed, going to hospitals to help translate for foreign media crews, so that they could understand what a child who is now paralyzed due to bombing wants to say to a silent world. 

      I would try to explain, to my own son, that hearing bombs and crawling when you want to go to the bathroom is okay, defaulting my brain to say “Yes, I am okay,” as an answer for every “Are you okay?” question.

      Because the policy of the organizations I worked for is clear: you can’t express any opinions related to anything if you want to continue working for us. So you just bury your feelings and learn to be silent. You get tired, frustrated, lose your identity, soul, passion, and you almost start believing it really is okay. Almost.

      Then I went to Monterey, one of the most beautiful cities in California, in the U.S.A.  Land of Freedom, where I saw a Black friend being profiled, a man in the street calling me a “terrorist from Afghanistan” in front of my four-year-old child, and much more. Yet more irony! I was so naïve to think that a country that can’t give its own people their basic human rights, could be the Land of Freedom for a Muslim, a woman of colour, coming from Gaza!

      When this hit me, I realized that I should have seen it right from the start, when I checked the “Resident Alien” box in a U.S. document, and my son asked me, “Are we aliens, Mama?”

      Finally, I went to Vancouver, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Canada, the real dream. I can’t deny that at first it was different. I felt so lucky that we had made it to B.C.

      In my first job interview, when I told Janice Abbott (at Atira Women's Society) that I was a refugee, and that I was still waiting for my SIN number, but I had a lot to offer, she just smiled, and said that all that mattered was my experience and knowledge. Perhaps only another refugee would understand what that meant to me.

      For the first time in my whole life, I was not judged for something I can’t control. I was not judged for my Hijab, for being a refugee, for being a woman, for not having the complete paperwork. I was judged as a human, on my knowledge and hard work, on all the nights in the U.S. studying to finish an M.A. degree, graduating with distinction, on my 12 years of fighting to grow in positions, on all the arguments that my father and husband had to go through with those who said I couldn’t do it. It was just me, and I won. I won, even if it was 10,755 kilometres away from my home, from Gaza.

      Then came the shock—the DTES, two steps from our office, but an entirely different world. Was I still in Vancouver? How could this be happening to these people? How could we be letting them down in this way? How can a woman be so worried about going to a hospital? How can someone be so sure that they’ll receive discrimination from the health-care system?

      How can a child be taken away from their mother? How can someone be so brutal to let a child down? How can we not see the kindness that many of these people hold? How is that here in beautiful Vancouver, people can’t understand that life is hard, and we need to be there for each other? And how is it, for God’s sake, that Indigenous people, the rightful owners of this land, can be treated and discriminated against in this way?

      Of course, I had asked those questions before. I asked them for 12 years in Gaza, living under the same injustice, with a different face. Sure, Gaza’s situation is different; it’s an active war zone, but to me, it’s the exact same injustice, and I have to fight it again. I have to fight it again here, and I am so tired. But I am a fighter, and fighters are never completely tired until they win.

      I lived this injustice in Gaza, and my soul, mind, and heart are still living it. The largest open-air prison in the world, where my mom, brother, sister, and my family are living, surrounded by death. I remember in the 2012 war on Gaza, my older son was only three, he looked at me when the shelling got so intense.

      I was holding his hand and kept telling him, “It’ll be okay, let us count to ten together, and it will be gone.” He smiled and told me, “Mom, it’s okay. These are fireworks. Don’t worry. I am here to protect you”.

      Thinking of this, of many other memories in Palestine, reading the indescribable Kamloops Indian Residential School horrific news, and going to work in the DTES, I start to think that maybe what we really need to do is to redefine what we think of as "humanity", because what I have seen in my short time on this Earth doesn’t feel "human" in any way. I wonder, maybe Inhumanity is becoming the norm, and what I think of as humanity is all too rare.

      A ceasefire was announced in Gaza. I was explaining to my children that our family is safe now, then my son asked me “For how long?”

      I told him “I do not know” and wondered: do we really have to live this way?